Unprecedented rates of species extinctions have prompted extensive research into the consequences of biodiversity losses on ecosystem functioning. While aquatic species are most threatened, research with freshwater and marine model systems has lagged behind progress made in terrestrial environments. This editorial to a special feature summarizes the main outcomes of a conference aimed at setting the stage for exploring the potential of aquatic systems to assess the role of biodiversity in ecosystem functioning. This series of papers proposes fresh approaches to the study of biodiversity effects on ecosystem functioning, outlines a new way of analyzing experimental data, presents a model that considers scale as an important factor determining outcomes, explores the effects of multiple stressors on species richness and ecosystem processes, and develops a food-web perspective that relates ecosystem properties to biodiversity. An insightful synthesis of lessons learned from aquatic systems is premature at present, but the papers clearly demonstrate the role that marine and freshwater systems can play in resolving open questions. The implications go well beyond the biodiversity in, and functioning of, ecosystems shaped by free-flowing or standing water.